A Brief History of Pre-War Sports Cards

Sports cards are one of the most popular collectibles in the country. This most likely stems from the popularity from sports like football, baseball, and basketball but also for their distinction as a uniquely American creation. Today, companies like Topps have built their legacy on creation all kinds of different cards for every major sport. If you can name a professional athlete, chances are there is a card that features their likeness. But where did these sports cards come from?

The true history of the modern sports card goes all the way back to the 1860s.  A sporting goods company called Peck & Snyder printed up the very first baseball cards as way of advertising their products. One side of the card would feature a famous player or team of the day while the reverse side would have an ad for some of Peck & Snyder’s merchandise. These cards were technically called “trade cards” and were given away for free at events and on street corners.  While baseball was the first subject of these trade cards it was far from the only one. As the trade-card collecting became more popular, companies began to create them with all kinds of different subjects like comic book characters and animals.

This tradition of using baseball cards as an advertising tool carried into the early 1900s when several different industries jumped on the bandwagon to promote their products. Most famous of these is the tobacco industry, but there were also candy companies that got in on the action and created some of the most beautiful (and expensive) cards ever.

When Word War I started, tobacco companies stopped producing baseball cards but that didn’t stop the candy and gum industries from continuing their most popular promotional campaign ever.  These cards tended to be more cheaply made than the earlier tobacco cards, with the objective of making them affordable for a younger audience. These cards were usually called E Cards, or early cards, by collectors. There were also strip cards,  which were a literal strip of cards connected by perforated lines so buyers could easily separate them.

Post Word War I in 1930, the next big thing in baseball cards was about to hit. Boston’s Goudey Gum Company created some of the most popular cards ever made. These Goudey Cards showcased some of the best athletes to ever play the game, like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Goudey became synonymous baseball cards with one simple trick: this was the first company to offer a baseball card with every stick of gum sold. This straightforward selling point put the company above and beyond the competition, even as other companies tried to copycat Goudey in an effort to catch up.

People could by these cards in one of two ways. As we mentioned before, Goudey included a baseball card with the purchase of every stick of gum. The price of that gum? Five cents. When he retired, William Wrigley Jr. (yes, that Wrigley) called Goudey “the penny gum king of America.”  The other way collectors could get their hands on the cards is by ordering the whole set at once directly from the manufacturer. This led to one particular card in the 1933 set becoming one of the rarest in history.  The 1933 set, also called “Big League Chewing Gum”, featured 240 cards. However, when collectors received their packages they only had 239.  #106, a retired Napoleon Lajoie, hadn’t been included. The only way to get the card was to write a letter of complaint to the company, at which point they would send it to you.

Goudey’s influence on modern cards can’t be overstated. The gorgeous hand-drawn art set an aesthetic standard for all the cards to follow it. Goudey’s 1933 collection used thicker cardboard than most of the baseball cards that came before, which set a precedent for how cards are printed today. You can still buy cards in the packs just like they did 60 years ago, although these days we’ve graduated from five cards a pack and you’ll have to get your gum fix elsewhere.